Seeing More Clearly

May 22, 2023

“Is your lifestyle worth more than my life?”

This was the question I seemed to hear from a frog as I passed through the marsh walking from my campsite to the beautiful shoreline at South Carolina’s Huntington Beach State Park. Sitting with it now, I can imagine expanding the question to have come from many voices throughout many bioregions, including human voices around the world. How have we tolerated the dissonance between our comfortable lifestyles and the deadly costs trailing along behind them?

One explanation is that it’s overwhelming to imagine all the ripple effects of our decisions. Also knowing how entrenched this capitalist system is throughout every part of our lives can lead us to throw our hands up and hope “someone” will figure something out before our situation gets any worse. Despite there being a thousand moving pieces to the challenges facing our world today, we each need to courageously engage in the conversation of what’s really needed now, bringing many perspectives, including other-than-human, together to determinedly transition away from a system on track to destroy the life systems of the planet.

In order for humans to fit into the biosphere instead of degrade it, we need to follow two main guidelines: no depletion of so-called “resources” and no waste. At first glance this seems impossible, but all other participants in the ecosystems have done so for millennia. It will take a lot of creative work to restructure our lives to minimize our consumption, as well to avoid putting any toxic byproducts into the environment. All options we weigh now as a society need to have these two “laws” in mind. We are clearly a civilization in overshoot, and getting back into a scale that can be supported by the environment is necessary to avoid extinction.

A recent map of climate effects on the United States shows that my part of North Carolina has been remarkably free of the fires, floods, droughts, and heat domes that have plagued so many other areas.[1] It’s easy to let the troubles that aren’t currently putting pressure on me fall out of mind. This is an amazingly beautiful and resilient world we live in, but the stability within any area can shift in an instant, as more people now know first-hand. Or it can shift at an imperceptibly slow pace so that if I don’t actively try to remember the bug-filled windshields and deeply forested play areas of my childhood, I might not recognize how much has been lost.

My mind keeps coming back to how we could materially live in a way that does significantly less harm to the biosphere, both near where we live and wherever in the world the products we use are sourced or manufactured. And not only in a way that does less harm now but leaves large areas unexploited so they can sustain future generations. I have a sense that most Global North citizens (comfortable participants in the dominant consumer culture, wherever they may live), have lived the last fifty years as if they’ve been in a candy store, and fear that if they leave the comforts and ease they’ve had, they’ll find themselves out in the violent, cold/hot, wet, precarious world. Simon Michaux said on a recent podcast, “it’s like telling an obese crack head to clean up and lose some weight. Guaranteed you’ll feel better once you do [and I would add, we’ll die if we don’t], but it will feel nearly impossible to do so.”[2]

I try to remember that these current conditions could be the best of the rest of my life. My perspective on the thousand-moving-piece challenge we face is that our developed society isn’t likely to make it. There are just too many changes needed that would take unimaginable amounts of cooperation and sacrifice. Small pockets in fortunate areas will develop local and regional solutions that are less destructive and require much less energy input, but current dense areas lacking food production won’t be viable. Our goal now might be to orient our lives, and our mindsets, to build new ways of living with Earth. And to be courageous in continuing to make the contributions we can, and not fall into despair despite the difficulties we’ll face.

The way forward into what Thomas Berry refers to as the Ecozoic era can start with each of us as individuals stepping out of the fast-paced consumptive life that has misunderstood the costs of convenience and oddly named “creature” comforts. What we deeply hunger for can’t be found in that life anyway. Because the current economic system can’t meet our deepest needs—to be known, to be creative, to have a sense of meaning and connection in our lives—we’ve accepted substitutes that in many cases are harmful to both us and the planet.

Many traditions including Christian contemplative, Buddhist, and Indigenous teachings have long included practices that can center us back into our bodies, into the natural world, and back into what could be called the mystical structure of reality. Though obscured by our busy daily lives, the spaciousness and connectedness found there can transform our capacity to endure the hardships we experience, as well as to grasp new possibilities. Finding a group with whom to share the practices amplifies that capacity.

Individually we can all immediately adopt and advocate for system structures that conform to the needs of the environment that sustains us: local regenerative agriculture, good public transit that eliminates the need for private cars, making our own entertainment, making and fixing things, and using public resources like libraries and community centers instead of everyone having what they use in their own homes. It’s also important to remember the stress that most people now are feeling. Centering practices support being able to respond with compassion and care instead of anger or frustration.

The transition from a civilizational model of never-ending progress to one of equitable subsistence within ecological limits will require a time of grieving, repentance, and gratitude. First, grieving. So much is being lost and most of us have very few skills at grieving, particularly grieving together as community. The work of Francis Weller has made large contributions to remedying this lack, including recognition that without being able to express our grief fully, we lose our ability to feel joy.[3] Second, repentance. We then need to turn away from the lifestyles that may at first seem impossible to do without. Radically simplifying our expectations of comfort and entertainment will open us to finding new capacities in ourselves and our local communities, as well as cultivating a sense of belonging to the places we call home. And finally, gratitude. Every aspect of creation is full of almost unfathomable beauty, and there is still so much kindness in the world, we could appropriately express our gratitude in almost every minute.

These are features of grief work, but also part of end-of-life hospice care. As we deal with the loss of a loved one, we grieve, repent of our failures toward them, and focus on our gratitude for the time together. But we must squarely face the loss if we want to find the ground under our feet again, and at some point even feel a return of creativity, connection, and joy. Losing aspects of our shared civilization and its undergirding ecosystems is even more destabilizing than the loss of a dear loved one, if we can let ourselves recognize the scale of it.

How can we be hospice companions to an ailing biosphere and failing society? Imagining that this society just needs some tweaking around the edges, or that we “just” need to switch to renewables, will only distract from the deeper work that’s needed now, and will actually worsen the collapse. Hospice is a time of taking stock and looking realistically at what is happening. Hospice time occasionally can be nurturing enough for a degree of recovery, but it doesn’t change the eventual outcome. If we take our global hospice seriously we would use this time to make amends, give thanks, and prepare for an uncertain transition to something previously unknown.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/18/opinion/wildfire-hurricane-climate.html

[2] https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/episode/49-simon-michaux

[3] https://www.francisweller.net/books.html


Teaser photo supplied by author.

Laurie Cone

After three life/career stages of working as an environmental chemist, staying home with her two boys, then teaching high school for essentially 10 years each, Laurie Cone quit her job, sold her house and moved to an intentional community in central North Carolina to homestead with her octogenarian mom, and to try and live like we have just one planet. Her community-building and soil-building activist life also includes camping, dancing, singing harmony, baking, traveling by train, and good conversation. She’s been traveling to Cuba most years since 2004, and is happy to have recently reconnected with her community there after a three-year pandemic pause. She has bachelor’s degrees in Chemistry and German, and a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Engineering.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, powering down